The Laying of Hands

I’m listening to my nephew chant his haftorah. I am only in this place on important occasions like bar mitzvahs or weddings. There will be funerals someday, possibly soon. Marcia starts to cry in the row in back of me. I know she’s thinking about her parents. I am too.

The last time I saw her mother, my Aunt Charlotte, at her apartment, I stared at her hands. They were chapped and raw. She had peeled the skin off from rubbing her fingernails back and forth across her palms. Then she dug the nails of her right hand into her palm and held them there until half-moons of blood obscured the natural long crease down the center–the lifeline we used to call it.

She told us Eva was sleeping. It was Eva we had come to see. So Marcia, Aunt Charlotte, and I sat at the white table on white chairs and watched the vines of the wallpaper grow over our heads while Aunt Charlotte told us she would not watch Eva die. She survived the camps, the long, slow death of Uncle Simon, and that was enough. She would not watch her first born slowly disappear. Marcia took her clenched hand and opened the fingers one by one kissing the raw skin of her palm underneath each finger.

I looked for something to focus on, some memory that would take me away from the kitchen table. On the counter was a bowl so old it was chipped all around the perimeter. In it were car keys and a case full of credit cards. On the edge of the sink was an open bottle of prescription pills and a paring knife, red with jam making crescent moons along the blade. I saw her hands whether I looked at them or not.

I remember how those hands would cup our cheeks when Marcia and I would come in from a walk and she’d kiss us, inhaling very deeply, with a loud snort that meant she knew we were smoking. We reeked of it. But she just wanted us to know that she knew. I remember when she pulled me to her that last time in the hospital with the identical gesture. There were tubes running out of her arms with an I.D. band on one wrist. Her hands were calloused. But they were smooth.

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